Summer Day, Abbotts Lagoon

Our day trip to Point Reyes this week was another pure delight, a summer day on the coast. Fifty miles inland a hot and dry July day was forming, but our visit to the coast was one of fog and blessedly cool temperatures.

The fog was so thick it was actually billowing in clouds that blew across the road. The sky had a low cloud cover and sweeping skyscapes all day.

Summer at Point Reyes National Seashore, Northern California. Migrating winter ducks and geese have not yet arrived, and it’s too early to look for migrating whales. But there’s plenty of color and beauty on this windswept coastal paradise.

It was still too early and too cold for shorts and sandals, so most visitors hadn’t yet arrived…just a few dedicated hikers quietly making their way down the trail to the sea.

The local denizens of Abbotts Lagoon, however, were busy with their day.

Upon arrival we noticed the lupine shrubs no longer have the yellow blossoms we saw last month. This is a snap of June.

And this (below) is a snap from this week, July. As you can see, this month the native shrubs have just the pods, the flowers are spent.

Coastal chaparral was colorful on this day, enhanced by the overcast sky, and was fragrantly herbaceous with the moisture.

Everything seemed to be hushed by the fog, including these Canada Geese.

The low-lying marsh area down by the boardwalk didn’t have water this time of year, but it had a thicket of marsh plants–docket (brown) and coastal hedge-nettle (pink).

Predictably there are almost always one or two black-tailed deer down at the marsh, grazing.

And sure enough, we spotted this fawn without its mother, who soon went bounding off.

Insects in the summer are different from the other seasons, and one of the stalwarts of summer is this beetle. We see them on the trail where their shiny black backs stand out against the sand. They’re about the length of a paper clip.

As we neared the sea, the trail turned to sand. It was too cold for the dragonflies who frequent this part of the trail, but a brush rabbit soon dove under cover.

Then we arrived at the shore and crossed the short walking bridge, always worth a stop to see if any creatures are underneath.

In the past we have seen river otters here, nesting swallows, a pelican carcass, and lots of different wading birds. That day it was a great blue heron hunting…and with success.

Since the spring, the beach plants have been flowering and they are different flowers every month. This month it is the gumplants that are in full bloom.

Robustly growing in large patches across the sandy beach, gumplants are named for the gummy white resin that grows in the center of each yellow flower. 

It was about a 45-minute walk back to the car, and then we were off to other parts of Point Reyes. I’ll tell you about that another time.

We were happy to spot this coyote as we drove slowly along the country road.

We also spotted a few female elk, aka cows, grazing. Point Reyes is the only National Park unit where tule elk can be found. A grassland elk found in just a few places in California, they live on a preserve in Point Reyes.

That day the cows were too far away to get a good photo, but here is a photo from another summer visit.

We see the elk every single visit on this road, Pierce Point Road. We look forward to seeing the elk next month, when the rutting (breeding) season typically begins.

There is much excitement when the bulls join up with the females. The males put on quite a show of territorial sparring with bugling and antler bashing. It lasts for a few months, so I’ll be sure to share the excitement with you.

Always a pleasure, my friends, to share Point Reyes with you.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

The Wooly Weeders

Every spring and summer in northern California we welcome the arrival of the grazing sheep. Here’s a look at how a few hundred sheep are used for fire prevention.

Vineyards hire them to eat the weeds between the grape rows and to thin the grape leaves. Landowners use them to organically mow the tall grass, a fire hazard, and other vegetation.

Typically our rainy season ends in May or June and then we don’t have rain again until about November. During this time the grass turns brown.

The sheep mow the grass, chew off invasive weeds, provide manure fertilizer, and aerate the soil with their hooves. Unlike weed whackers or mowers, there is no fuel used and the only noise is lots of “baaas” and “maaas.”

These photos were taken from the edge of town last month, the ovines were here for three weeks.

I estimated the flock at 200-300, and it seemed they were all lambs and ewes.

The sheep were accompanied by one shepherd, a Peruvian man, and an Australian Shepherd dog named Lollie.

Since fire dangers have increased in California, grazing services have become more popular. Sheep, goats, even llamas and alpacas are seen. Here we had just sheep, called the Wooly Weeders.

There are more than 200 distinct breeds of sheep on this planet and breeding is ever-evolving. This flock is some derivation of the East Friesian Milk Sheep, the world’s highest producer of milk.

The Wooly Weeders owner tells the story that he originally had the sheep herd for their milk, he sold it for artisan cheeses. Then one day while they were near the Mondavi Vineyards, the sheep escaped their pen and started eating the Mondavi grass. And that began the business of hiring the sheep for grazing.

Wooly Weeders website

There are lightweight temporary wire fences that contain the sheep, electrified by two car batteries to keep the sheep in and predators out. Every 1-3 days the shepherd moved the fencing. Then he and the dog moved the flock to a new plot until all the grass was eaten.

The day they were all done, the shepherd collected and packed all the equipment (below).

You can see they’ve eaten all the tall grass and the bottoms of the shrubbery but not the unreachable green tops. This is an oak woodland, and fortunately they do not eat the oak trees.

Herding time was dramatic.

First the dog circled and re-circled the flock several times, following short one-word commands from the shepherd. In this photo the black dog is in the front doing her job.

As she circled the flock, the ruminants were forced to stand up and crowd together, and after about five minutes of this they became concentrated into a small space. Here the dog is in back on the left.

Once they were crowded into a herd, they ran in one direction, then back over where they just were. Back and forth, the herd zig-zagging over the same spot, led and dominated by the dog. Although it looked non-sensical and completely chaotic, there was a reason.

Stampeding over the same spot where they’ve been grazing for a day or two had a purpose: they were grinding their own manure into the ground.

Everything is dry here, so the dirt would get kicked up and a dusty tornado hovered over the flock.

Each section usually took 24-48 hours for the sheep to eat the grass. They ate voraciously.

Regardless of how steep the hill was or how rocky, the sheep mowed it all.

Sheep, like other ruminants, have jaws designed for chewing. You can see from the sheep skull below that they have front teeth on the lower jaw only. These teeth press against the gum of the upper jaw to tear off vegetation. Then the rear teeth grind the vegetation before it is swallowed.

Courtesy Wikipedia.

The sheep were never quiet. They have many vocalizations and many tones. They bleat (“baaa”), grunt, and snort. I’ve read there is rumbling when males are present during breeding.

The bleats are contact communication, and very distinctive. One sounded exactly like Chewbacca from Star Wars. Tones were low and deep as well as high.

We watched this sheeply spectacle so long that we got to be pretty good at recognizing individual calls.

None of it was baaaaaad.

There were dozens of nursing lambs in the flock, and their “feed me” bleating sounds were more high-pitched and insistent. They were often calling out to their maaaaaaaaa.

After three weeks, the sheep had finished mowing the whole area. They were herded into a long livestock truck, loaded up and off they went.

Hopefully we will all be baaaaaaaack next summer.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

American Vistas

As Americans celebrate Independence Day this weekend, it’s a good time to ponder and admire the diverse habitats and picturesque vistas all contained in this one large country.

The western half of the country is dominated by the Rocky Mountains–the largest mountain system in North America–and the Pacific Ocean.

The west has far more tectonic plates at work underground than in the east, creating more rugged mountains and geologic features. West coast beaches in general tend to have more craggy rocks and chilly water currents.

Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, America’s first national park, has over half of the world’s geysers and hydrothermal features.

The west is home to expansive deserts, too. Arid regions with minimal precipitation and unique landscapes.

Much of the country’s central section, the Midwest, is flat. Once a land of vast prairies, it now hosts over 127 million acres of agriculture and has some of the richest soil in the world.

Some U.S. prairies still exist, like this one in Texas.

Bisecting the near-center of the country is the Mississippi River, the second largest river in the nation (second to the Missouri). It drains all or parts of 31 states before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.

The Gulf of Mexico, another of our nation’s coasts, is one of humid subtropical climate bordering five states.

America’s Great Lakes, in the center of the country and eastward, form the largest group of freshwater lakes on earth. They were formed via glacial activity.

All of the Great Lakes are huge, this is just a small section of Lake Michigan in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The eastern half of the country is dominated by the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean’s coast and coastal plain. Mountains on this side of the country are older and not as high as in the west. Warmer waters and long stretches of white sand beaches enrich the eastern seaboard.

In addition to the 48 contiguous states, America also has five major island territories; a tropical island state, Hawaii; and Alaska, our largest state, in northern, arctic regions.

Alaska is the state with the most islands, 171, and the country’s tallest mountain, Denali, with a peak reaching 20,310 feet (6,190 m.).

Lots of rivers in this country too — over 250,000.

Link: Map and List of U.S. Rivers

The Columbia River, pictured below, has the largest discharge into the Pacific Ocean in North or South America.

Wetlands in the U.S. are critical habitats for improved water quality, erosion control and flood protection to name a few. They are found in every state, but there are more in the east where glaciation created an abundance of aquatic habitat. The largest wetland system in the U.S. is in Florida, the Everglades.

This is the Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin, below. I was born in this region and visiting America’s marshes and swamps is always like going home to me.

Most of our eastern nation’s southern states fall into the humid subtropical climate zones, where warmer temperatures, bayous and swamps can be found.

Cities occupy much of our country. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2020 the United States has over 300 cities/towns with populations over 100,000.

It is no wonder that Americans like to flock to our 423 nationally protected parks, monuments and preserves for recreation. Our nation maintains more than 85 million acres of parks in all 50 states. Of those, there are 63 classified National Parks.

While many of America’s cities in the west are lovely…

…the cities in the east boast more national history.

The city where our Declaration of Independence was signed is Philadelphia. It served as the nation’s capital for one decade in the 1790s.

Today, Washington, D.C. is the capital city and federal district of the United States.

This week, the 2020 Census reflects a current U.S. population of 334,861,117.

Our country and its peoples have come a long way since the early days. So many different people and cultures have built this country, called it home.

We all have a lot to celebrate.

Happy Fourth!

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

The Bobcat

On a visit to Pt. Reyes this week, we came upon this beautiful bobcat. One of my favorite wilderness haunts in northern California, Pt. Reyes did not disappoint.

When we came upon this bobcat, it was in a field where we had seen a bobcat about two years earlier. Since the pandemic curtailed travel two years ago, we have been visiting Pt. Reyes nearly every month and we always drive slowly at this spot, every single visit, searching, scanning, always looking to get lucky with another siting. And this time…bingo.

Lynx rufus is very territorial, so it’s probably the same individual we saw earlier.

This is a female. Her body was about three feet (a meter) long; sleek and muscular.

Unlike all the other times I have observed a wild bobcat, she did not disappear right away.

She continued to prowl in the grassy field. Then she was crouched and clearly stalking something.

Athena quietly jumped out of the car and huddled behind the vehicle, using it for a partial blind as she snapped these photos.

Another minute went by and then the bobcat pounced. She came up with a large pocket gopher firmly clenched in her jaws.

Instead of heading in the opposite direction to indulge in her prize, the bobcat surprisingly walked right past us.

Females solely care for the young who are typically born in April or May, so we determined she caught this pocket gopher for her kittens.

She was on a mission to feed some hungry mouths. Probably three or four waiting for her in their den, where they will depend on her for about a year.

This photo shows her pointy lynx ears.

Here you can see her short, bobbed tail for which the cat is named. And her big feline paws are prominent, as well as her exquisite markings.

We watched in silent reverence for five precious minutes, and then she, and her fresh gopher, descended down the hill and out of sight.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Western Fence Lizard and More

In my humble enjoyment of wild creatures across the planet, I am reminded on this hot summer day of one of my favorite creatures on earth: lizards.

They can thermoregulate their body temperature and gather energy from the sun. Let go of their tail if it is clenched in the jaws of a predator and grow another.

Many have not two, but three eyes. Located on the back of the head, the third eye is used for regulating hormone production and detecting predators.

Our local lizard, the western fence lizard, possesses all these features and more. They are commonly found in California and many of the western states; and classified as Sceloporus occidentalis in the order Squamata and suborder Iguania.

With the current high temperatures lately, I have had the pleasure of watching them skitter around me every day.

They are small lizards, could fit into your hand. But good luck trying to get them into your hand because they’re lightning fast.

Males have a blue underside; you can see it here.

This one (below) has a small circle of pale blue on his throat.

This photo below highlights his many scales.

The scales overlap and are made of keratin. They provide protection from the environment as well as preventing water loss.

Lizards eat the mosquitoes that would otherwise bite me. This is a gift, pure and simple. They hop up and snatch the insect so fast that you can’t even see their tongue at work.

I love to sit outside at the end of a summer day watching the lizards. As opposed to the morning when they are sluggish and still storing the sun’s energy, late in the day they are super fast, like on steroids, after soaking up the sun all day long.

In addition to all this, Sceloporus occidentalis have a feature so extra special that it has become the subject of many scientific studies. They have the ability to neutralize the deer tick bacterium that transmits to humans, thereby curtailing the transmission of Lyme’s Disease.

Deer ticks are the primary carriers of Lyme disease. A protein in the blood of western fence lizards kills the bacterium in these ticks when they attach themselves to a lizard and ingest the lizard’s blood.

Numerous studies have determined that Lyme disease effects less people in California than in the eastern U.S., due to our most common lizard’s neutralizing abilities. That’s a gift too.

More western fence lizard info:

Western Fence Lizard Wikipedia and Northwestern Fence Lizard

This is a photo of another of our common lizards, the alligator lizard.

These photos, below, are some of my favorite lizards from other parts of the world, starting with the small ones and working up to very large lizards.

These last two, the marine and land iguanas, are gloriously huge.

If you are squeamish about Squamata, I hope this lizard love fest has warmed you to these magnificent creatures.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Seattle Waters

The northwest corner of the United States is a bevy of islands and waterways, and inside it all is Seattle, Washington. Here is a look at a few of the waterways in the Seattle area.

Flying into Seattle, air passengers get a glimpse of the water that surrounds the city. Not only is the Puget Sound bounding the west, but you see islands, channels, canals, and lakes in every direction.

By consulting the maps below, you can see the unique layout of the land and water in the Seattle area.

Puget Sound is a large saltwater estuary system fed by the Olympic and Cascade Mountain watersheds. More info: Puget Sound Wikipedia

The city’s Discovery Park (below) overlooks the Sound, as do many other smaller parks.

This photo demonstrates the operating shipyards in Seattle.

The ferris wheel is a popular Seattle waterfront attraction.

There are 21 state-operated ferries on Puget Sound and many additional public tourist vessels, as well as hundreds of private boats. Some residents commute by ferry.

Many of Seattle’s surrounding islands are havens for tourists and residents looking for a quieter way of life. Vashon Island, pictured below, is a 20-minute ferry ride from Seattle.

In addition to the Puget Sound’s dominating influence, there are many other waterways too.

Situated on an isthmus between Puget Sound and Lake Washington, the city is bisected in the middle by a series of canals and locks called the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

This canal system connects the Sound to the Lake.

A person can traverse across the city entirely on boat.

Several busy urban neighborhoods have canals flowing through them. Often there is a park alongside the canal, where you can watch boats quietly cruise by. Here you can see there is an office building and a parking lot directly adjacent to this canal.

Bays, creeks and the Duwamish River also occupy significant Seattle real estate. According to Wikipedia, water comprises approximately 41% of the total area of the city.

With all of these waterways come bridges.

There are approximately 150 bridges within Seattle’s city limits. Floating bridges, drawbridges, double-deckers…old, new, and a few historical.

List of Bridges in Seattle, Wikipedia

The Fremont Bridge, in the two photos below, is the most frequently opened drawbridge in the U.S. It is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, built in 1917. The second photo shows it opened.

There are also some major lakes in Seattle. Last week I presented a post on Green Lake, but there are two other major lakes here, too.

Washington Lake, stretching the city’s eastern side, is the second largest natural lake in the state of Washington (second to Lake Chelan). It is 22 miles long (35 km), enormous, and is classified as a ribbon lake for its glacially formed long, narrow and finger-like shape.

Lake Union, part of the Lake Washington Ship Canal system, is a large and popular lake. Houseboats, seaplanes, rowing teams and many other kinds of boats line this lake.

In 2014 I had the thrill of boarding a seaplane at Lake Union and flying over the Puget Sound and San Juan Islands to Victoria, Canada. It was a commercial operation flying small Cessnas via Kenmore Air Harbor.

Walk for ten minutes in Seattle and you will see a seaplane up above.

The Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, located on South Lake Union, outlines the city’s maritime history.

This vessel below, the Virginia V, is docked there. The steamer, launched in 1922, primarily transported passengers between Tacoma and Seattle.

Glass artist Dale Chihuly, who was born in Washington State, has brought a plethora of art and artistry to Seattle, often highlighting the sea life that is so deeply rooted here.

Seattle’s Chihuly Garden and Glass is an indoor/outdoor museum exclusively featuring his art. A few of his maritime pieces are pictured below.

This glass sea star (below) is a sprightly detail of the bigger sculpture entitled Sea Life (below).

Many of his glorious glass works celebrate the sea, including this elegant octopus.

This community of waterways is one of the best parts of Seattle. The sea air, winds and waters are a great reminder of the wild and wonderful side of this seaport city.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Puget Sound. Courtesy Wikipedia

Northwest corner of Washington State. Courtesy Wikipedia

Seattle’s Green Lake

I was in Seattle for the Memorial Day weekend, visiting dear friends, attending a wedding. Every morning I enjoyed a three-mile walk around the lake. It is a pleasure to share Green Lake with you.

What a treat it is to have this sparkling emerald gem of nature in the middle of a bustling cosmopolitan city.

It is a large lake, as you can see. The surface area alone is 259 acres (1.05 sq. km).

And it is a busy park, to be sure. In addition to the residents getting their daily constitutionals, there are many planned activities and numerous facilities. I liked going before 7 am when it was quieter and more subdued.

More info: Green Lake Wikipedia.

I have visited Green Lake in all seasons, but I found the end of May to be one of its most charming times with lots of bright green budding growth on trees, plush carpets of verdant grass, and many sweet signs of spring.

There were always several crew boats rowing on the water. The distant microphoned calls of the coxswain were a familiar sound in the overcast, cool morning.

One day there was an outrigger club getting set up for a race. It was raining that morning, but no one seemed to notice or care. In fact, it rained every day.

Other vessels we saw on this freshwater lake were motorboats, kayaks, and sailboats. We saw several swimmers, too.

It was a fun surprise to see Seattle’s most iconic landmark, the Space Needle, while walking the path. The city has painted the Needle in its original color, Galaxy Gold, to commemorate its 60th anniversary.

Green Lake Park has a plethora of trees–tall, stately cedar trees, willows, and many conifers and ornamentals, too. Every so often I would spot someone’s severed fishing line dangling from one of the willow trees.

One afternoon we found a tree with a special prize in it.

In spite of the path filled with strollers, dog walkers, and joggers, and the grassy areas lively with holiday picnics and friendly visits, Athena and I spotted a chickadee feeding her young nestlings. Black-capped chickadee.

The chicks were tucked inside a hole in the tree trunk (above). The hidden, invisible nest would audibly light up with the shrill voices of several demanding chicks every time a parent came in with food. It was entertaining and endearing; giant dogs and humans walked past the tree, crows too, unaware, while the two parents doggedly caught insects, delivered them and repeated the process over and over.

There are busy roadways around the entire circumference of the lake. Streets are lined with businesses and rows of houses, and all are festooned with the ubiquitous rhododendrons. Tall, fluffy bushes in a variety of cheerful colors. There’s nowhere on earth with more thriving rhododendrons than the Pacific Northwest.

Aerial view of Green Lake. Courtesy Wikipedia.

In this expansive, populated city, how refreshing for humans and wildlife to have an oasis of flora and fauna reminding us of the joy and miracles that abound in nature.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Roe the Crow

One of my new favorite pals of late is an American Crow. This is a brief story of how one crow figured out how to improve its life.

Gender identification for the American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) is difficult to distinguish, so I have given my new friend a gender-neutral moniker: Roe.

Here’s how it all started.

We have only lived at this house for two months. At first no crows came to our new backyard bird bath. I didn’t really think about it, because plenty of birds did.

And then one Saturday our neighbor kindly gave us a welcome-to-the-neighborhood party. At the party that day I watched a crow land in a neighbor’s bird bath. The crow was comfortable as it sipped the water, and clearly this was part of its routine. I thought: how lovely to host a crow daily.

I love crows and ravens. Members of the Corvidae family, they are one of the most intelligent bird species we have on this planet. They are bold, resourceful and highly intelligent; the species is abundant.

Wikipedia tells us that crows have the same brain-weight-to-body ratio as humans. American Crow Wikipedia.

Inspired by the party-day crow action, I began making sure our birdbath was always full of clean water. Within a week or two, a crow was visiting regularly. It’s probably the same one as the neighbor’s.

This crow, Roe, is easy to identify not by vision, since they all are practically identical, but by behavior. He or she does the exact same thing every time: lands on the edge of the bird bath, dips the pointy, black bill into the water several times, swallows. Then the bird turns its body around in one deliberate about-face, facing out, and flies off. S/he always flies off in the exact same flight pattern.

After that the crow was here frequently. Sometimes twice within five minutes.

Then this weekend a new behavior began.

It flew in, landed confidently and knowingly on the bird bath as before.

But this time when Roe arrived, there was something in its bill. Something big and white. With the crow being entirely black, a large chunk of white in the bill was very noticeable.

S/he dropped the white morsel into the water; let it soak in the water for a few seconds; then fished it back out of the water–by now softer and more pliable–and ate the whole thing.

Roe did this several times that day and again the next.

At first I thought it was bread or a cracker.

Athena and I quickly got out all our optics to investigate further, but we still can’t really tell what it is. A piece of paper? A flower petal? Dogwood? Daisy? Cracker?

Except for occasional lakes and reservoirs, we don’t have standing water in Northern California by mid-May…the rainy season is over until winter. So Roe has found this reliable water source and figured out a way to use the water to soften its meal.

One time the crow soaked it and softened it and then carried off the morsel; but all the other times–about a dozen so far–s/he eats it right there, then flies off. This repeated behavior tells me it is food, not nesting material.

I realize this fascinating behavior may not last. Crows are gregarious and form big flocks and who knows, there may be a day when I’ve got too many crows at the bird bath.

But for now, what a joy to be entertained by an intelligent, resourceful avian being.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Amer. Crow by John J. Audubon, circa 1861

Vultures are Cool

We were driving on a California country road this week surrounded by sweetly fragrant ceanothus wildflowers, when we came upon two lethargic turkey vultures standing in the road. Turns out they were doing us a big favor.

Because they were not moving for us, we slowly drove toward them and eventually they lifted slightly and got out of the road. But in the next moment a strong, putrid whiff of dead animal reached us. There was no carcass to be seen on this overgrown roadside, but somewhere nearby there was a dead and rotting animal.

Fortunately the vultures were on the job. They are a gregarious species, so eventually this dead animal will be completely consumed. The birds were lethargic because they were full.

There are 23 extant species of vultures in the world: 16 in the Old World (Africa, Asia, Europe) and 7 in the New World (the Americas).

Here in the U.S. we have three vulture species, all are pictured in this post: turkey vulture, black vulture, and California Condor.

More info: Vulture Wikipedia

The turkey vulture is the most widespread vulture species in the New World. Cathartes aura is a year-round bird in the warmer U.S. states and South America. We have them year-round in California.

Just about every time I am outside, nearly every day, I see at least one turkey vulture soaring overhead.

This is their classic look in flight, below.

Another common vulture sight is this one, below. It is called a horaltic stance, and serves multiple functions: drying the wings, warming the body, and baking off bacteria.

This is a turkey vulture nestling, below. The nest was in a small rock cave.

Turkey vultures do not have a vocal organ, so you don’t usually hear anything from them. But that day we found this baby turkey vulture, it elicited a shockingly evil hissing sound that I still hear in my mind when I look at the above photo.

Vultures are important for cleaning up the carrion that naturally exists on our planet. A vulture’s featherless head and hooked bill, seen below, are their carrion-eating tools.

They are also equipped with exceptionally corrosive stomach acid, allowing them to digest putrid carcasses infected with toxins and bacteria.

When not soaring, they fly closer to the ground, using their keen olfactory sense to detect the smell of gas (ethyl mercaptan) produced by a dead, decaying animal.

We spotted this vulture species (below), California Condor aka Gymnogyps californianus, on the California coast near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur. Ten years ago. We had visited a popular condor release site without success three years earlier, and finally had success in Big Sur, another release site, with this one. We actually saw two at the time, for about five really thrilling minutes.

They have the largest wingspan of any North American bird, measuring approximately10 feet (3.05 m).

There is an interesting story about this individual, #90, I’ll tell you another time.

California Condors are listed on the conservation status as critically endangered, and many vulture species have suffered a rapid decline due to loss of habitat, intentional and unintentional poisoning, and electrocution.

India and other countries have discovered that without vultures to pick animal corpses clean, there have been increased feral dog populations leading to increased dog bites and increased rabies transmission. But the problem is, protection comes too late. Vultures do not reproduce quickly. (In the U.S., vultures are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.)

While in Africa on numerous safaris, I have had the pleasure of watching many African vultures. It is not the loveliest sight, seeing a vulture dig around in the intestines of a carcass, but it is interesting to see the hierarchy of animals and the bonanza that unfolds when one wild animal has killed another. Equally fascinating is observing how the parade of scavengers completely devours the carcass.

One day we had the rare honor of seeing a pack of wild dogs in Botswana. Before we arrived, they had killed an impala and dined extravagantly. Then they ran off in a frolic of energetic euphoria and the vultures came in.

A closer look reveals their bloody faces.

Here are the white-backed vultures, Gyps africanus, that attended the carcass after the wild dogs were done. You can see the head of the vulture on the left is deeply inside the carcass.

These vultures have a wingspan of 6-7 feet (1.96-2.25m), and are now, unfortunately, critically endangered.

Another time we came upon this baby elephant carcass. Vultures and storks were feeding. You can see the skull on the far right…it has been picked clean.

These banded mongooses were watching the frenzy.

Fantastic creatures with unique features, vultures help keep this earth safe and clean. Next time you smell sweetness in the air, remember it could be more than flowers at work.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Nuptial Ants

This is a spring nature phenomenon that I find fascinating: the nuptial ant flight. It is subtle and short-lived…and a wonder to witness.

It looks like a lot of small moths flying in random directions. But on closer look, it is ants with wings. Thousands of them. And they are all emerging from the same spot in the ground.

If you look closely at the bug on the lizard’s mouth, below, you see it is an ant with wings. You can also see how the lizard has strategically positioned himself at the feast, all around him are the winged ants.

The ants with wings, also known as alates, have been selected by their ant society to perpetuate the colony. There are thousands of them because many of them will end up in a predator’s mouth, like this lucky lizard’s.

It is an important phase in insect reproduction and occurs in ants, termites, and some bee species. (I have only witnessed it in ants.)

More info:

Here is a photo of a carpenter ant nest on a normal day. Worker ants doing their job. Every black dot is a busy ant.

And here is a close-up of a nest hole.

Down below and out of our sight is a highly organized ant colony, millions of ants. Their social system is elaborate with various castes of workers, soldiers and more.

It’s a different scene on the Big Day when the colony releases winged fertile males (drones) and females (queens) to mate, form new colonies. They come shooting out of the hole by the thousands.

On earth we have 22,000 different species of ants. One of the world’s leading experts on ants, E. O. Wilson, estimated that the total biomass of all the ants in the world is approximately equal to the total biomass of the entire human race.

The success of their species is attributed to their social organization and drive to collectively work to support the colony.

On the day of their nuptial flight, a day they have been building toward, the winged reproductive ants leave the nest in a powerful pursuit.

It is a perilous journey. Predators will gobble up many of them.

Lizards have long tongues they can rapidly flick out and snatch up prey, and this little guy was very practiced at the art.

Here you can see his tongue. And his little legs are stretched out in his feeding frenzy.

I have seen so many of these emergences that when I see warblers or swallows or other creatures behaving erratically and in large numbers, I stop whatever I am doing and investigate.

The emergence is fast. The flying ants come spewing out of a hole, sometimes a crack in a rock…and in a few minutes it is over.

Lizards scurry, birds swoop — all the wildlife get lined up to partake of this delicious opportunity.

Here in Northern California I have seen it the most in April, often a day or so after it has rained. But I’ve also seen it on warm fall days. It’s different for every ant species.

Last week we were enjoying tea on the deck when swallows started congregating just above us.

On most spring or summer days we see one violet-green swallow, or a pair, in some nest activity.

That day there were 20 or 30 swallows within minutes– circling and diving and air-catching the flying ants. This photo shows numerous swallows in pursuit; the ants are so tiny they cannot be seen here.

Usually the event is so chaotic that you wouldn’t guess it was an ant thing, especially since it is airborne and involves so many wings. What you see is a flurry of diaphanous wings fluttering in hundreds of different directions.

The emergence is partly based on weather conditions: not too windy or cold, and wet but not too wet.

Every black dot on these rocks is an alate or winged ant.

It never lasts more than ten minutes.

When the flying ants are no longer spewing from the ground, the predators leave, the show is over.

The males mate with the queens and their life is over. The queen chews off her wings and begins the excavation of her new chamber where she will begin laying eggs.

What a species!

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.